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Scythe, Pandemic Legacy and Yogi creators on the unending, essential process of playtesting board games to perfection

“It’s a confirmation that all your good ideas aren’t that good.”

Image credit: Jamey Stegmaier

Grab the rulebook from one of your board games. Any one will do. Flick to the back and you’ll find one of those things that Netflix wants to help you forget exists: a list of credits.

In that there will be a list of names under the single heading “Playtesters”. It’s a role that’s both challenging and rewarding, and something that every game goes through; yet, despite the necessity of the role, game designers aren’t always eager to start the process.

“It’s a confirmation that all your good ideas aren’t that good,” Rob Daviau, legacy board game pioneer, Pandemic Legacy co-creator and lead designer for Restoration Games, tells me. “I heard someone describe it once as inviting people over so they can tell you that your child is ugly.”

I heard someone describe playtesting once as inviting people over so they can tell you that your child is ugly.

Playtesting is the process of trying out a game, examining what worked (and what didn’t), and making the necessary adjustments to improve the players’ experience. It’s an iterative act that takes place throughout a game’s development, from the first time a designer puts together some proxy components and places them on the table - at a point where they may not even have a fully-formed set of rules - all the way through to having a near-complete version with finalised components ready to enter production.

The first part of playtesting is with whoever’s to hand: the designer’s colleagues, game night group or even just themselves mimicking multiple players around the board. (Daviau acts as though his players are based on the Magic: The Gathering mana colours: “I decide Red’s the aggressive player, Blue is the tricky player, Green’s going to play defence and White doesn’t really know what’s going on, so is going to make the most obvious move.”) Even though it can be disappointing to find that an initial design doesn’t play as well around the table as it did in your head, a consistent comment from designers I spoke to was that they expected this letdown.

“I know going into [my initial] playtests that the game is going to suck. All of my first prototypes do,” Jamey Stegmaier, designer of Scythe and Tapestry, admits. “It’s really later down the road when the game should be working that I’m tense and nervous at playtest sessions.”

Prototype board games often use generic components and might even lack artwork of any kind. Image: Jamey Stegmaier

It’s during these later sessions that more people are brought in for playtesting - often enthusiastic players rather than designers. Even though I’m not in the industry, I’ve playtested a couple of game expansions, simply because I saw a request on BoardGameGeek and the original games were some of my favourites. One of my colleagues, Steven Farey, independently got involved in a different game - co-op board game Spirit Island - in part because of his love of the game, but also because he was working on designing his own game and was interested in the behind-the-scenes process.

“Working with someone who really knows what they’re doing was really interesting to me,” Farey explains, “and I get to see things soon, I get to see the process behind them, and in some ways I get to have input into that process, which is fun.”

He also enjoys the chance to try more experimental ideas: “When we first started playtesting the new set of stuff, it was completely different to playing the full polished game. I was trying out a lot of wacky ideas for [player character] spirits [in Spirit Island], some completely oddball - being the second expansion, at that point you’re pushing the boat out more, going in strange directions. It started out with, ‘Here are some weird things, figure out what works.’”

As a designer you have to be aware of your own biases, so that’s a useful thing when you’re playtesting with someone else.

Even as the number of people playtesting a design goes up, a lot of the testers will be other designers. The most obvious reason is a simple need for reciprocation. In the UK, the Playtest UK group holds meetups around the country and at large events, like UK Games Expo, where designers of all levels of experience bring along prototypes for mutual testing.

Bez, creator of word game Wibbell++, along with Twister-like party board game In a Bind and its successor Yogi, is one of the organisers and a regular attendee of the London-based events. She tells me that these meetups are one of her prime spots for playtesting, and the attendance of other designers is one of the things that made it so valuable.

“The reason I playtest with my peers is that peers are quite good at divorcing themselves from their emotional biases,” she says. “As a designer you have to be aware of your own biases, so that’s a useful thing when you’re playtesting with someone else.”

An early prototype of Jamey Stegmaier's strategy board game Scythe showing the main map and player board actions. Image: Jamey Stegmaier

A side effect of this is the lack of diversity it can instil in playtesting groups. With the majority of designers and board game players - especially in online spaces and attending meetups where playtesting occurs - being cis white men, playtesters recruited from those spaces will often skew that way unless deliberate action is taken to invite a wider pool of players. Most of the designers and testers I spoke to do not collect or report on social diversity while gathering results from their testing, but acknowledged the imbalance.

This is one of the things that the later stages of the process can help. Once designs are a bit more tied down, designers can start sending their work to strangers to test, either as print-and-plays or in a pre-assembled sample version. Getting people from elsewhere in the world to test and respond to the game can help get a variety of perspectives, although it’s still limited by the simple fact playtesters have to be selected from the range of people who volunteer the time and effort involved, which often doesn’t present a huge list to start from.

And volunteering - especially for remote playtests - does have a cost. Adrian Schmidt has playtested a smattering of games since getting involved because “it looked interesting, and it was a chance to do something ‘special’ for the hobby”. He describes the work involved for playtesting a board game, as opposed to playing a published game, as being extensive.

Opinions aren’t wrong. But solutions often are.

“Cards need to be printed, cut and then sleeved together with a playing card or similar. You have to make a representation of every single component in the game. It’s also harder to play a game that doesn’t have at least functional art and components that look like you might expect from what they represent. When playing a multiplayer game, we usually talk about our thoughts after the game, and I try to take some notes.”

This analysis adds a whole extra layer to playing a game and can often lead to playtesters offering suggestions for changes to make the game better, along with their general observations and experiences. Every designer I spoke to seemed to expect this, but most had a common observation: “Opinions aren’t wrong. But solutions often are,” as Stegmaier puts it.

He gives an example from his recent civilisation board game. “In Tapestry, several playtesters said that whenever they drew a tapestry card, they wanted to draw two and pick one. However, that would really slow down the game, and it decreases the tactical nature of tapestry cards. What they were really asking for was more selection, so I added tapestry cards as part of a player’s income.”

Party board game Yogi had two very minor differences from its previous release as In a Bind.

After designers work and iterate their way through all this feedback, at some point games need to be declared finished. When I ask Bez what the moment is where she can say a game is finished, or ready to publish, she laughs.

“Those are two different questions,” she responds. “Playtesting is never done. A published game can still be playtested. In a Bind was published; I changed two cards, it turned into Yogi. One card took people about three seconds to understand. For a party game where I expect people to pick up a card and understand it in half a second, it was way too long.

“But when do you know to publish it? Flippantly, I’d say when you’re sick of it. More honestly, it’s different for every project - but generally, it’s when you’re no longer making meaningful changes.”

When do you know to publish it? When you’re sick of it.

Stegmaier has a more quantitative approach. “Part of it is gut instinct, but I also ask playtesters to rate each session on a 10-point scale, and when I start to see those ratings creep over 8, I know we’re getting really close.”

Sometimes the answer is extremely mundane. Daviau’s first comment when asked the same question is immediate: “Sometimes it’s just the deadline. Deadlines are a real thing.”

The value of playtesting, though, is clear throughout the process of creating a board game. From isolating the fun parts from a wealth of ideas at the start, through nailing down what works and balancing the details, up to testing simple usability issues and the rulebook before publication, every step of a game’s development is built around testing and iterating. It’s a part of the tabletop industry built around volunteering or reciprocation, with players often simply getting their name in the rulebook and a copy of the game at most.

For many players, that’s enough. Farey comments on his contribution to the upcoming Spirit Island release: “At the moment, it’s basically done. I can play the new expansion a year before anyone else plays it. In some ways, that’s a reward in itself.”

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